Recently, I had a conversation with a member of the central Pyongyang elite out of the country on business. He is a long-time friend, and his information has proven to be accurate and trustworthy. When I pressed him for the latest news from Pyongyang, he described how the sanctioned social and economic order in North Korea’s capital city was descending into anarchy. He added, “The leadership is no longer respected. Fewer Pyongyang residents are prepared to offer unquestioning loyalty and obedience to the state.”
When I asked him to elaborate, he said that Pyongyang was increasingly becoming like the provinces of North Korea. His remarks conform with other reports I have heard coming out of Pyongyang. ‘The Provincialization of Pyongyang’: the impact of these words cannot be felt without understanding the nature of the border that has kept Pyongyang separate from the rest of North Korea.
Theoretically, North Korea’s Public Distribution System (PDS) caters to the dietary requirements of every North Korean, in the form of daily, weekly or monthly rations. Symbolically, the PDS serves as an ever-present reminder to the people that their lives are sustained by the blessings of their leader. In tangible terms, the PDS does not exist. When Kim Jong-il realized he did not have enough food to feed the entire country, he made a decision to restrict the distribution of rations to those living within the boundaries of Pyongyang. He did everything in his power to sustain the symbolic authority of the PDS in Pyongyang, so that the city could serve as a beacon of ideology and a model of absolute loyalty. Nevertheless, it is through this process that Kim Jong-il’s North Korean regime shrank and became a Pyongyang regime.
Outside Pyongyang, infrastructure that had served the PDS were quickly converted for other uses and officials in the provinces ignored central orders. When asked to donate rice to the military, the provinces argued that they weren’t ‘Pyongyang people’ because they did not receive rations. When asked to attend Party lectures, ordinary North Koreans skived compulsory sessions in order to trade in the black markets. The rationale? Party lectures did not provide them with rice. The rice of loyalty turned against the Pyongyang regime and became the rice of resistance.
As black market trade that fed the people blossomed across North Korea, the planned economy of Pyongyang that could not feed its people shriveled away to leave behind a symbolic shell. The pride of Pyongyang residents has been eroding with this transformation. For the first time, Pyongyang residents are feeling trapped inside the city rather than trapped in the provinces, as the quality of life in the city continues to stagnate due to its distance from the vital black market trade that sustains the rest of North Korea. In this context, the ‘Provincialization of Pyongyang’ refers to how the phenomenon of decentralization and separation from the system in the provinces is spreading to Pyongyang itself.
As the Lee Myung-bak administration came into power in South Korea and outside aid to North Korea dwindled, the North Korean regime has not been able to provide rations even to Pyongyang residents for almost two years. The ration cards provided in the workplace became useless. Moreover, the failure of the currency revaluation meant that even workers’ salaries were worth less. Consequently, there was another upsurge of people who effectively ‘went off the grid’ by choosing not to turn up to their state-assigned jobs, which only reinforced an already existing trend. Even with the threat of banishment from Pyongyang, most sources agree that more and more Pyongyang residents put practical necessities – such as the ability to feed themselves – before loyalty to the state: a painful lesson that had been learnt during the famine of the 90s.
In Pyongyang, there is a concentration of central institutions whose officials too are looking for ways to survive outside the system. The fact that such disorder has reached even the capital city of Pyongyang has diminished the prestige of the leadership in the people’s eyes. As latecomers to the markets, Pyongyang residents are scrabbling for their individual livelihoods. Yet from above still come the orders for collective action such as infrastructural development, military mobilization and adherence to revolutionary thought. This is only serving to further distance the reality of Pyongyang residents’ lives from the their leadership.
Significantly, it is said that with Kim Jong-un succeeding his father Kim Jong-il, some North Koreans are thinking that there is a possibility of a change in leadership style. This is loosening the concept of an ‘absolute ruler’ to the point that it has become more difficult to carry out political purges. Take for example the purge of Ryugyung. In the past, all his associates would have disappeared with him yet only one man was punished. This may be explained by the ‘Provincialization of Pyongyang’ and the decentralization of the system. When rations stopped in Pyongyang and institutions were allowed to feed their employees rather than individuals relying on the state, a new concept of loyalty to one’s department – rather than to the Leader – was birthed in the minds of North Koreans.
The markets have completely altered the fundamental nature of the binding ties of North Korean society. Not only has the leadership not been able to provide for its people, North Koreans have already opted out of the system. In this context, continuing aid to North Korea in its existing form serves not a humanitarian purpose, but a political purpose. We must re-think how to aid the North Korean people as they continue to seek ways of sustaining their lives outside the system.
Jang Jin-sung, Editor-in-chief